German Empire

Deutsches Reich[1]
German Empire
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   |style="vertical-align:middle; text-align:center; font-size:115%; border:0" | 1871–1918
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Flag Imperial Coat of arms
Gott mit uns
"God with us"
(none official)
"Heil dir im Siegerkranz" (Imperial)
"Deutschlandlied" (popular)
"Die Wacht am Rhein" (Unofficial)
Territory of the German Empire in 1914, prior to World War I
Capital Berlin
Language(s) Official language:
Unofficial minority languages:
Danish, French, Polish, Frisian, Lithuanian
Colonial languages: Bantu, Oshiwambo, Afrikaans, Swahili,
(African Colonies) Chinese,
(Tsingtao & Jiaozhou bay)
Papuan languages, (German New Guinea)
(German Samoa)
Religion Protestant~60%
Roman Catholic~40%
Government Constitutional monarchy
 - 1871–1888 William I
 - 1888 Frederick III
 - 1888–1918 William II
 - 1871–1890 Otto von Bismarck (first)
 - 8–9 November 1918 Friedrich Ebert (last)
Legislature Reichstag
 - State council Reichsrat
Historical era New Imperialism/WWI
 - 1910 540857.54 km2 (208826 sq mi)
 - 1871 est. 41058792 
 - 1890 est. 49428470 
 - 1910 est. 64925993 
     Density 120 /km2  (310.9 /sq mi)
Currency Vereinsthaler, South German gulden, Bremen thaler, Hamburg mark, French franc
(until 1873, together)
Goldmark (1873–1914)
Papiermark (after 1914)
Weimar Republic
Republic of Alsace-Lorraine
Free City of Danzig
Second Polish Republic
Klaipėda Region
Saar (League of Nations)
Hlučín Region
Northern Schleswig

|} |- | Today part of ||  Belgium
 Czech Republic
 Russia |-

| colspan="2" | Area and population not including colonial possessions
Area source:[2] Population source:[3]

|- |} |}

The German Empire (German: Deutsches Reich,[1] called by some German historians as Kaiserlich Deutsches Reich or Kaiserreich) refers to Germany from the unification of Germany and proclamation of William I as German Emperor on 18 January 1871 to 1918, when it became a federal republic after defeat in World War I and the abdication of William II (28 November 1918). Deutsches Reich remained the official name of Germany throughout the Weimar period and most of the Nazi period until 1943, when it was changed to Großdeutsches Reich ("Great German Empire").

During its 47 years of existence, the German Empire emerged as one of the most powerful industrial economies in the world and a great power, until it collapsed following its military defeat in World War I and the concurrent November Revolution. The most important bordering states were Imperial Russia in the east, France in the west, and Austria-Hungary in the south.

The German Empire consisted of twenty-six constituent territories (if Alsace-Lorraine is included) but the Kingdom of Prussia contained most of the population and most of the territory of the Empire.

Bismarck's founding of the empire

German nationalism rapidly shifted from its liberal and democratic character in 1848, called Pan-Germanism to Prussian prime minister Otto von Bismarck's pragmatic Realpolitik. Bismarck sought to extend Hohenzollern hegemony throughout the German states; to do so meant unification of the German states and the elimination of Prussia's rival, Austria, from the subsequent empire. He envisioned a conservative, Prussian-dominated Germany.

Three wars led to military successes and helped to persuade German people to do this: the Second war of Schleswig against Denmark in 1864, the Austro-Prussian War against Austria in 1866, and the Franco-Prussian War, known as the German-French War in Germany, against France in 1870–71. During the Siege of Paris in 1871, the northern German states, supported by its German allies from outside of the confederation (excluding Austria), formed the German Empire with the proclamation of the Prussian king Wilhelm I of Prussia as German Emperor in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles.

Bismarck himself prepared a broad outline—the 1866 North German Constitution, which became the 1871 German Constitution with some adjustments. Germany acquired some democratic features. The new empire had a parliament with two houses. The lower house, or Reichstag, was elected by universal male suffrage. However, the original constituencies drawn in 1871 were never redrawn to reflect the growth of urban areas. As a result, by the time of the great expansion of German cities in the 1890s and first decade of the 20th century, rural areas were grossly overrepresented.

Legislation also required the consent of the Bundesrat, the federal council of deputies from the states. Executive power was vested in the emperor, or Kaiser (Caesar), who was assisted by a chancellor responsible only to him. The emperor was given extensive powers by the constitution. He alone appointed and dismissed the chancellor, was supreme commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and final arbiter of all foreign affairs. Officially, the chancellor was a one-man cabinet and was responsible for the conduct of all state affairs; in practice, the State Secretaries (bureaucratic top officials in charge of such fields as finance, war, foreign affairs, etc.) acted as unofficial portfolio ministers. The Reichstag had the power to pass, amend or reject bills and to initiate legislation.

Although nominally a league of equals, in practice the empire was dominated by the largest and most powerful state, Prussia. It stretched across the northern two-thirds of the new Reich, and contained three-fifths of its population. The imperial crown was hereditary in the House of Hohenzollern, the ruling house of Prussia. With the exception of the years 1872–1873 and 1892–1894, the chancellor was always simultaneously the prime minister of Prussia. With 17 out of 58 votes in the Bundesrat, Berlin needed only a few votes from the small states to exercise effective control.

The other states retained their own governments, but had only limited aspects of sovereignty. For example, postage stamps were issued for the empire as a whole, as was the currency and coinage through one mark. Higher valued pieces were issued by the states, but these were virtually commemorative coins and had limited circulation.

While the states issued their own decorations, and some had their own armies, the military forces of the smaller ones were put under Prussian control. Those of the larger states, such as the Kingdoms of Bavaria and Saxony, were coordinated along Prussian principles and would in wartime be controlled by the federal government.

The evolution of the German Empire is somewhat in line with parallel developments in Italy which became a united nation state shortly before the German Empire. Some key elements of the German Empire's authoritarian political structure were also the basis for conservative modernization in Imperial Japan under Meiji and the preservation of an authoritarian political structure under the Tsars in the Russian Empire.

One factor in the social anatomy of these governments had been the retention of a very substantial share in political power by the landed elite, the Junkers, resulting from the absence of a revolutionary breakthrough by the peasants in combination with urban areas.

Although authoritarian in many respects, the empire permitted the development of political parties. Bismarck's intention was to create a constitutional façade which would mask the continuation of authoritarian policies. In the process, he created a system with a serious flaw. There was a significant disparity between the Prussian and German electoral systems. Prussia used a highly restrictive three-class voting system in which the richest third of the population could choose 85 percent of the legislature, all but assuring a conservative majority. As mentioned above, the king and (with two exceptions) the prime minister of Prussia were also the emperor and chancellor of the empire—meaning that the same rulers had to seek majorities from legislatures elected from completely different franchises.

Germany emerges as an industrial power

Under the leadership of Prussia and Bismarck, Germany had emerged as a nation and as a world power. In 1871, 39 separate states were united. The kings of Saxony and Bavaria, the princes, dukes and electors, Brunswick, Baden, Hanover, Mecklenburg, Württemberg, Oldenburg, all paid allegiance to the king of Prussia, the Kaiser. With unity there came an extraordinary period of energy and expansion.

In 1871, there were 41 million citizens in the German Empire. In 1913 there were nearly 68 million, an increase of over half. More than half of this number were living in towns and cities.

But it was not merely an expansion of population. The foundations of economic strength at the turn of the 20th century were steel and coal – Germany had made great strides with both:

  • Steel production multiplied by twelve in 30 years
  • Coal production multiplied by nearly five in 30 years
  • Manufactures multiplied by four
  • Exports multiplied by three
  • Exports of chemicals multiplied by three
  • Exports of machinery multiplied by five

In 30 years, Germany’s share in world trade had risen by a third. Now, in 1914, Germany was the most powerful industrial nation in Europe. The epitome of her industrial might lay in the firm of Krupp, whose first factory was built in Essen. By 1902, the factory alone had become "A great city with its own streets, its own police force, fire department and traffic laws. There are 150 kilometres of rail, 60 different factory buildings, 8,500 machine tools, seven electrical stations, 140 kilometres of underground cable and 46 overhead."

Under Bismarck, Germany had come closer than any other state to modern conceptions of social welfare. German workers enjoyed sickness, accident and maternity benefits, canteens and changing rooms and a national pension scheme before these were even thought of in more liberal countries. Yet the life of the workers was hard. The steel mills operated a 12-hour day and an 80-hour week. Neither rest nor holidays were guaranteed. In Germany, as in every industrial state, there was poverty and protest.

By 1912, the Marxist Social Democratic Party was the strongest party in the Reichstag, the German parliament. But the Reichstag did not rule Germany. The Kaiser ruled Germany through officials whom he personally appointed.

Constituent states of the Empire

Before unification, German territory was made up of 26 constituent states. These states consisted of kingdoms, grand duchies, duchies, principalities, free Hanseatic cities and one imperial territory. The Kingdom of Prussia was the largest of the constituent states, covering some 60 percent of the territory of the German Empire.

Several of these states had gained sovereignty following the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire. Others were created as sovereign states after the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Territories were not necessarily contiguous – many existed in several parts, as a result of historical acquisition, or, in several cases, divisions of the ruling family trees. The constituent Duchy of Saxe-Lauenburg, then ruled in personal union by the Prussian king, merged with Prussia in real union in 1876.

Each component of the German Empire sent representatives to the Imperial Council (Bundesrat) and the Imperial Diet (Reichstag). Relations between the Imperial centre and the Empire's components were somewhat fluid, and were developed on an ongoing basis. The extent to which the German Emperor could, for example, intervene on occasions of disputed or unclear succession was much debated on occasion – for example with the Lippe-Detmold inheritance crisis.

State Capital
Kingdoms (Königreiche)
Prussia (Preußen) Berlin
Bavaria (Bayern) Munich
Saxony (Sachsen) Dresden
Württemberg Stuttgart
Grand duchies (Großherzogtümer)
Baden Karlsruhe
Hesse (Hessen) Darmstadt
Mecklenburg-Schwerin Schwerin
Mecklenburg-Strelitz Neustrelitz
Oldenburg Oldenburg
Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach (Sachsen-Weimar-Eisenach) Weimar
Duchies (Herzogtümer)
Anhalt Dessau
Brunswick (Braunschweig) Braunschweig
Saxe-Altenburg (Sachsen-Altenburg) Altenburg
Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (Sachsen-Coburg und Gotha) Coburg
Saxe-Meiningen (Sachsen-Meiningen) Meiningen
Principalities (Fürstentümer)
Lippe Detmold
Reuss, junior line Gera
Reuss, senior line Greiz
Schaumburg-Lippe Bückeburg
Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt Rudolstadt
Schwarzburg-Sondershausen Sondershausen
Waldeck-Pyrmont Arolsen
Free Hanseatic cities (Freie Hansestädte)
Imperial territory (Reichsland)
Alsace-Lorraine (Elsaß-Lothringen) Straßburg